I am saddened by the wickedness of my generation. Three weeks ago – before the Coronavirus quarantine – I returned to the YSA ward that I attended in college. I noticed a man sitting by himself on a pew. I didn’t remember his name, but I did remember him. He sat by himself on that same pew seven years ago. Seven years sitting alone at church.
If this was an isolated incident, I would not be so despondent. But this was not isolated. A few weeks before, a young man visited my New York YSA ward. He was new to the city, an actor, and a return missionary. After I introduced myself, I had to leave for a blessing.
As I left the chapel, I looked back. He was surrounded by several groups of friends that each talked among themselves. They did not make eye contact with him. He dropped his eyes to his phone, obviously wanting someone to talk with. No one introduced themselves. He did not come to the second hour.
A month earlier, our YSA ward struggled to get people to help with church cleaning. In the end, only four people came: two members of the Bishopric – who took time away from their families – the person called to be the building coordinator, and me. Later that evening, twenty-five people showed up to a Valentine’s day speed dating event with free food.
The last time my YSA ward did a service activity was over a year ago. We went to a homeless shelter. Three people showed up: the Bishop, one woman from the ward, and me. We have not made any service plans since then.
According to Pew, as of 2016, U.S. Millennial retention rates were just 46%, well below 72% for Boomers. For U.S. YSAs, it’s probably closer to 30%. The Church is aware of its retention problems but does not appear to understand the root problem. We are treating the symptoms, but are unable to diagnose the disease.
Millennials aren’t leaving the Church because of its stance on LGBTQ+ issues, though that certainly hasn’t helped. Nor are we leaving because of greater access to early Church history, though that probably has not helped either.
The main reason we are leaving the Church is because we do not feel that we are becoming more like Jesus Christ. In part, we are right. YSAs are stunted in their spiritual growth. At least until parenthood forces us to be more outwardly focused (and often not even then), we tend to be as equally self-centered and un-Christ-like as our secular counterparts. We do not welcome the stranger. We do not feed the hungry. We do not visit the afflicted. Church is a reliable way to make friends and search for a spouse. If we can fill those needs elsewhere, we will.
Our mission as a Church is to bring people unto Christ. Most of my generation still want to come to Him. Then why do we feel like we are not? We are teaching the correct principles, but we are not applying them. We read Matthew 25 in Sunday School but rarely reach out to those we are called to minister.
My generation needs to be called to repentance with “boldness of speech.” Particularly the YSA, who are idling away the days of their probation, need to organize and carry out activities to help people in their communities. If nothing else, they can volunteer their time to help babysit for married couples with small children, who are often over stretched and over burdened.
I wish we did not need drastic action. I wish we could be trusted to follow the personal revelation of the Holy Ghost. But 11 years in YSA wards has convinced me that my generation will not become more like Christ without dramatic intervention. This is what the YSA of my generation need:
- Frequent service opportunities. Stern admonitions against refusing to give service.
- To apply the gospel together. For ministering interviews, minister with the interviewee if they are struggling. It’s not enough to talk about ministering.
- Help getting to know the names and faces of everyone in the ward. One of the main reasons people don’t talk with each other is that they don’t know each other’s names and are too afraid to ask. One of the main reasons visitors are not greeted is because members don’t know everyone in the ward and they don’t want to assume that someone is new.
- If necessary, occasional use of hours allotted to church on Sunday for direct service, as is done during times of natural disasters.
- Frequent, stern and specific admonitions against destructive internet habits, especially overuse of streaming, social media, and aimless browsing. Time freed from these habits can easily be put to use elsewhere.
- Frequent discussions about how to serve fellow family members.
- Discussions on charitable giving. YSAs need to establish patterns of research and giving that they will use as they grow older.
When my generation once again feels that coming to church is bringing them closer to Jesus Christ, they will keep coming. They will also come back in droves. They will bring friends, who are desperate for stoic admonishment and gospel truths in an era of coddling and self-centered consumerist entitlement.
One day, this or a future generation will be called upon to meet the Lord Jesus Christ at His second coming. My generation is not prepared for that day. If we do not repent, we never will be. Help us to come unto Christ.
 See Moroni 10:32, See also Chapter 1 of Preach My Gospel
 Jacob 2:7
 See Matthew 25
I’m in a position of leadership in my stake, and one of my responsibilities is single adults. I also struggle with what to do/say for them, and have been hesitant to call people out because I don’t want to be seen as just another old, white, married guy who doesn’t get it. You’ve given me much to ponder here…thank you.
Strong words, William. But provocative and thoughtful, thank you. You only used the word “community” once, but for me, that’s the word that gets at the heart of the issue you’re talking about–exacerbated by the extreme-dialing-up of individualism we have in American culture. If we could strengthen our community, and with that, our devotion to seeing the gospel lived out in ours and each other’s lives? Man, the Spirit could be so strong, and we could become more Christlike so much more meaningfully. I struggle because I’m something of a bookish introvert, but I want–so badly–that community. And it feels like the world we live in make it so difficult to really connect in meaningful ways (point 5 is big there, I think). I appreciate the suggestions.
(Also, hello from a fellow New Yorker! Hope you’re staying safe with all the craziness going on.)
Agreed that a focus on Christ and Christlike service is needed. Unfortunately too much of our focus in on the idolatry of the nuclear 1950s Norman Rockwell family, and too much of the focus of YSA wards is too make friends and search for a spouse (both are good things, but can’t be the focus). At the “family ward” level, my sense is that much of the dissatisfaction also comes from a lack of focus on Christ and Christlike service, and too much focus on serving the institution of the church that takes people away from their Family. Too much of church service is on things like cleaning the building which is not exactly what Matthew 25 has in mind. Yesterday I got an email from a good brother asking me to report to him on how my ministering families (which is his family) are doing so he could report it to the ward council. We both laughed at the absurdity of the situation. I love #4. I don’t profess to have a good answer to Nate Oman’s question about the next welding link, but Christlike service is my best thought so far.
Is there any evidence that your proposals will bring millennials “back in droves” or is this post more of that wishful thinking the bloggernacle is so fond of?
Thanks Randall! I think the biggest challenge for most Stakes is that they are used to treating YSAs like consumers (come here and we will give you food) rather than as assets (you have a lot of free time, we could really use your help). The problem is that finding ways to put YSAs and Single Adults to work is itself a difficult and time consuming task, and we tend to avoid those unless we have to.
Bryan – I think community is exactly the word I was looking for. How can we be a community if we don’t even know each other’s names? How can we serve each other if we don’t know what each other’s needs are? How can we know each other’s needs unless we talk to each other?
We’ve definitely lost a lot of community in this country. I think everyone knows that. What everyone is struggling with is how to get it back.
Thanks David! I think the reason we tend to focus on institutional service is that it is logistically easier to organize than Matthew 25 service. We’re all used to shuffle of callings. There are set things to do, and we can plug and play. Finding Matthew 25 service opportunities is much more difficult because it varies area by area and requires a lot of personal initiative. I don’t have a good answer either, but that’s the direction I think we should be aiming.
Thanks Fellow Millennial! It’s mostly wishful thinking (there’s no statistics to back the argument up). But you can think of it like a problem of relative advantage. What can the Church offer that we cannot find elsewhere? We can find entertainment and socialization in other places.
Besides theological arguments (i.e. we have authority to baptize unto salvation), our goal should be that this is the best place to bring you closer to Christ (i.e. align your actions with his teachings). I believe that some people have an inherent desire to do that and that desire is not being met elsewhere. If the Church can offer that, I think it can capture a large segment of previously disaffected LDS who now see a reason to come back. They’re getting something out of Church that they did not have before.
I am an older millennial, not a YSA, so don’t squarely fit into this definition, but I am surrounded by younger millennials at work — both LDS and not LDS. I think you are giving them a bad rap. I don’t think the Church isn’t working for millennials because they are selfish (or “wicked”). I think the Church isn’t working for them because it doesn’t reflect their values or their version of ethics & morality.
The millennials I work with care a tremendous amount about service to others and to the world. They care about the environment, and actually limit their consumerism in ways older folks don’t in order to make environmentally-conscious and ethical choices. They care about serving disadvantaged members of their communities — such as the homeless, the mentally ill, and LGBT folks. They care about building community. They care about equality of all races, sexes, sexual orientations, immigration status, etc.
They care very much about being moral, ethical, community-minded folks. I think the problem is that the way the church views morality and ethics–focusing on sexual purity and abstinence from various substances–is disconnected with the way many millennials view morality and ethics–focusing on caring for the earth and respecting other people’s humanity and goodness. I was commenting to a friend the other day that I’ve gotten to the point where the for-profit corporation that I work for seems to better reflect my values and morality than the Church, because although its object is to make money, the company I work for is also committed to equality, the environment, charitable giving, respect for all people, etc.
So yes, in a way I agree that if the Church provided more opportunities for service it might do a better job at retaining millennials. I agree that the Church isn’t doing a great job at building community among those groups in the way it did when I was growing up. But I think the Church would have to totally redefine the way it looks at service, morality, and ethics to really bridge the divide. (I agree with the comments above that cleaning the buildings of a church with $100B in investments doesn’t really resonate as the kind of service opportunity people are looking for.)
I also must say that in my personal experience, millennials are indeed leaving in droves over LGBT, gender, and historical issues as genuine motivating factors. I know a lot of people who still find a sense of community at church but cannot in good conscience continue to participate because of how strongly they feel about these issues. No amount of community building or Christ-oriented service will make up the difference for a good chunk of those people.
I might quibble with a few of these (#4 really depends on how often you might expect that to happen, for instance), but overall these are excellent ideas.
Outside of the YSAs, I have seen in the family wards I have been in, that the wards that have an increased focus on service tend to do better with retention and general ward unity. Wards that didn’t make service a focus tended to be more distant and lackluster. My current ward is quite rich overall (except my neighborhood, a neighborhood the stake can’t seem to figure out where it belongs because it’s a poor area surrpunded on all sides by very upper-middle and upper class neighborhoods; we’ve changed wards 6 times in 4 years), but it is one of the happiest wards I have been in, mainly because they do a lot of service and they encourage service.
Amen, David. And William Barlow, I agree 100% with you conclusion “The main reason we are leaving the Church is because we do not feel that we are becoming more like Jesus Christ. In part, we are right.”
Your solutions are a step in the right direction, can I riff on them?
*Dissolve YSA branches and put YAs back in wards where there are primaries, youth, elderly, and others who need young muscle (spiritual, emotional, physical). YAs also need to be with wiser mentors (be they younger or older).
*In addition to re-focusing on Christ, re-focus on love, the nature of God and Gods, divine nature, enlightenment and progression and charity.
* We are really good at cultivating saints to Fowler’s level 3, but fall off a cliff at 4 and then have precious little support for those in 5&6. People get stuck in a hamster wheel of 3 and burn-out.
*Local and general leaders need to feed us. Information needs to be personal, real, impactful, two-way, and transformational. Guess what? Re-hashing the same old pioneer stories is none of those things. Scripture study that unpacks verses in the same old way- is not succor. Nit-picking some small linguistic nugget and then sharing it because it meant something to you, is not succoring the people. Mindlessly going through the motions in reading correlated content is neither personal nor fulfilling. Generic, bland conference talks do not inspire. Being stuck in wards with the blind leading the blind is not nourishing. The mindset that “When the brethren speak the thinking has been done” and no response is required or appropriate- is stifling. One last thing- hovering in a state of perpetual waiting and obedience isn’t healthy either. Don’t you think it’s boring “staying the course” rather than cutting it? We’re cut out of the same fabric as our convert ancestors, and yet we have no trails to blaze, no big dreams to pursue. We stay the course and wait for another generation to come and go, forgetting that we were handed the baton to bring about millennial peace- to end worldwide hunger, sickness, strife. What was that? Oh never mind. Can someone please pass me the toll paint jar?
*Resolve political dissonance in the church (e.g. stop winking all the time at a certain party.)
*Act with love to ostracized and mistreated groups (LGBT, non-white persons, everyone who isn’t corporate elite, women, etc.) There’s a lot to unpack here, but if life has been a test, we failed several case studies.
*The question of Mormon relevance is not Christ alone, Christ’s purpose was not himself. When we can figure out what his purpose was, and align with it, we’ll be getting closer. (And like David said, it is not the idolatry of the nuclear family).
*Lastly, and importantly, we’ve got to address materialism. It is a cancer in us- described in vivid detail by Mormon. Every church (including ours) is to suffer in the last days from materialism and pride. Screen time is just the symptom of a materialistic life focused on expensive entertainment and possessions with dubious utility. (I’m not saying tech is bad-just that imbalances can often be rooted in materialism.) Why do we spin our wheels trying to figure out why we are hemorrhaging youth and people in general when our name-sake book spoke from the dust specifically warning us about materialism and it’s consequential impact on the poor as well as our eternal souls? When was the last rebuke or concern you heard in conference on materialism? Yeah- I don’t remember either. Hey, anyone wanna go shopping in our new $5B fancy mall for Tiffany jewelry when the pandemic ends?
I think you are right that certain people will leave over LGBTQ+ and historical issues regardless of the other reforms of the Church. But I know a number of LGBTQ+ members that are staying. Those friends have a strong desire to follow Christ and a testimony. I think they’ll stay as long as they don’t feel spiritually stagnant. Interestingly, some have even had a strengthening of faith during their crisis because they were growing spiritually as a result (their understanding of revelation and the meaning of revelation was growing as they came to accept their sexuality and many described it as a very spiritual experience). If the Church can strengthen its focus on Christ and become more accepting of LGBTQ+ individuals, even without doctrinal changes, I believe they will stay.
On the point about large for-profit corporations reflecting good values, I respectfully disagree. Corporations are there to make money and management overwhelmingly care about moving up the social hierarchy. They are the epitome of today’s Pharisees, giving lip service to social justice to cover up more profitable and pernicious deeds.
I do think millennials get bad raps on some things. But in my experience they care more about giving lip service to social causes than actually rolling up their sleeves and helping. For them, it’s a way to move up the social hierarchy and “fit in” rather than a general desire to help their fellow man. I suspect that’s the same as previous generations, just with different causes.
You do bring up a lot of great points, though. There isn’t a silver bullet here.
Thanks Ivan! I wish I could see what, if anything, the service oriented wards were doing differently. Perhaps its too much to hope for a silver bullet to change things.
I am not a millennial. But i married in my 30’s and spent my 20’s as an active LDS single. One thing I remember is that singles tend to be introverts. They really do need knowledgeable advocates at the ward and stake levels.
I think we’re going to end up losing that generation, if the tradeoff is changing doctrine and/or rules. My YSA kids tell me that everyone “expects” standards to change. Maybe a smaller church is the future.
I worry about our current youth, who are subject now to a much less challenging program that isn’t overtly focused on service, just personal growth, however we define that.
I 100% agree on our problem with materialism. Self-denial to help others is such a large part of both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. We really don’t discuss it much, telling members to follow the Spirit. Although that is not bad advice per se, I’d be surprised if the Lord or the Spirit was happy with the amount that we consume on ourselves versus what we give to others, both in terms of time and money.
I love your other points as well. I particularly like point 4, I’ve seen many good and well-meaning saints fall into some of those traps. We’re supposed to be building Zion. Instead, it too often fells like running on a treadmill.
Old Man – thank you!
I think the biggest misconception about singles is that they are consumers that need to be placated. The reality is that we have more time and energy than anyone else given that we don’t have a young family to look after. What we really need is a purpose and a cause. Unfortunately, treating us like consumers often does the opposite of that.
I am very worried about this generation. Lowering the intensity is often not the solution. I respectfully think we need to up the intensity and make sure it’s pointed the right way.
“Millennials aren’t leaving the Church because of its stance on LGBTQ+ issues, though that certainly hasn’t helped. Nor are we leaving because of greater access to early Church history, though that probably has not helped either.”
Yes, you’re right that isolation is a reason that people are leaving. They are disengaged. But if you read the stories of why people leave, they frequently cite changes in perspective on social and historical issues. I have every reason to believe that these issues are causing inactivity.
I’m all for a complete restructuring that involves more social connection through service and other community activities. Making friends and building relationships goes a long ways in increasing activity.
Well-said, Elisa, 100%. All those kids on their phones are reading, and some of what they’re reading concerns LDS LGTBQ issues and the enormous historical problems facing the Church. I appreciate Wm Barlow’s intent with this piece but his diagnosis seems a combination of wishful thinking and iron rod orthodoxy. Another part to the “losing a generation” puzzle: the complete undiluted oppressive utter boredom and lifelessness that characterize our meetings. This is bad enough for my generation, but for the kids? …
The culture of the institution has a brand and trademark quality that comprises identity—this provides social cohesion if you fit the LDS brand and trademark. But if you do not fit the brand and trademark, the LDS experience can be polarizing. The institution’s formalization of the corporate brand and trademark is protected by the Church Educational System (CES), enforced institutionally, and represented in what is known as “The Honor Code.” The Honor Code expresses “This is The Way to live.” The problem is between the CES and the youth.
The youth respond, “Our gods are not your gods,” or “Our brands and trademarks are not your brands and trademarks,” or “We do not like your culture, we do not like the way you live. Some may even say “Your corporate quest for brand and trademark have overshadowed the the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The youth do not reject the Gospel, they reject the Brand (the institution). Just the Gospel, please.
Mortimer, I agree with a lot of that. As one formerly very active (ward and stake leadership callings and total commitment for 50+ years), now almost completely disengaged person told me: I left for other pastures because I simply was not being fed at church.
She didn’t mean that in a selfish, “church needs to fill my needs”, way — she had devoted a lifetime of service to the church — but got to the point where the organization of the church simply wasn’t helping her to draw closer to Christ via service opportunities or spiritual instruction or otherwise. (Plus, the LGBT issues got to be too much.) If a lifelong member who has raised kids in the church and whose entire social and community network is entangled with the church leaves because church isn’t spiritually sustaining, young people who haven’t yet formed those social ties will be even more likely to leave for similar reasons.
William, fair point about corporations’ motives, but I think people give a longer leash for corporate hypocrisy than for religious and there are plenty of Pharasaical tendencies in the church today …
WB: “I wish I could see what, if anything, the service oriented wards were doing differently. Perhaps its too much to hope for a silver bullet to change things.”
I don’t think there’s a silver bullet, but in the few wards I have attended that are service oriented, what it takes is leadership that see service as important and is willing to take the time to encourage it, talk it up, and actually find service opportunities for the ward.
I’m not sure assigning more work – more charitable volunteer opportunities, etc. without a better scope and purpose is wise. We’re dealing with burnout and relevance issues at the core. Doing hard work without a higher vision (beyond “it made a difference for that starfish”) is a recipe for quicker burnout. For example- you can invite me to clean the church 1000 more times, and I’m not going to feel good about it. It feels like the church is just trying to save a buck and punish us for years of cheerio-smashing. You can invite me to Mormon Helping Hands 1000 more times, but I will question why in a disaster I’m picking up trash if I’m a physician (I’m not- just saying- hypothetically). Just as we have to have the right fit logistically for activities, we also have to have the right spiritual fit. A lot of things have to come together- and that’s one of the reasons why I think our church, and most others, are struggling now.
I think the closest program that pulled all these pieces together was Cheiko Okazaki and Elaine Jack’s short-lived youth and adult literacy project for the RS. Reading comprehension was to unlock scripture study- and build both a knowledge of and a relationship with God. It would also uplift individuals and families temporally as reading fights ignorance and poverty and is a requirement for individual progression.
This initiative connected smoothly with our lifelong learning goals, CES, and eternal progression. It addressed world-wide illiteracy rates, and revived Emma and Joseph’s original vision for a charitable organization.
Too bad women get cycled out of the red chairs every few years.
I am a bit of an old fart and it has been 3+ decades since I was in a YSA ward. I kind of look at this in very “what is in it for me” as part of the problem. I do like your suggestions – lots of service and less time sitting in services where the same thing is said over and over.
It reminds me of a quote I ran across that really resonated with my disillusion with the church.
“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion–its message becomes meaningless.”
? Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism
The church as it is structured now just doesn’t “work” for many.
Elisa – Thank you so much for sharing. When the Church is losing people that sincerely want to follow Jesus Christ, that should be a warning that we need to be doing better. Losing one person like that is bad enough. But we are losing far more than that. I hope we can do better.
Mortimer – I think you hit the nail on the head with one of the biggest problems with my proposal. How do we become more Matthew 25 service oriented without it just becoming another program that adds burnout? I think the answer has to be that we remove some burdens as we add others. I can’t tell you how many ward council meetings I think could have been reasonably substituted for service with much better results.
Happy Hubby – Great quote! I agree we really need to be looking inward to find answers. It doesn’t help to blame the world. We can’t change the world. But we can change our ward.
Rob Ferrell’s presentation is amazing if you are a leader wanting to help YSA http://rob.leadingsaints.org/live-summit-page36330386
I have been to BYU’s EduWeek to hear him speak, and listened to all of his presentations at his summit and even created a 3-part Kahoot. Here’s part-1 if anyone is interested in helping YSA. https://create.kahoot.it/share/what-s-up-with-ysa-these-days-understanding-young-single-adults-we-need-to-change-our-approach/621c6688-8242-4c17-ae48-58771145f13f
I currently am just a dad and have 4-YSA living in my home and Sunday we talk about the issues and then I test their knowledge about faith, stepping stones versus stumbling blocks etc.
Dr. Robert Ferrell has served as an elders quorum president, high councilor, YSA bishop, and YSA stake president, and has presented at firesides and conferences—including BYU Education Week—about connecting with young single adults. …The Leading Saints podcast interview with Rob Ferrell is the #1 most downloaded episode in the history of the podcast.
This is a really thought-provoking post.
Did anyone see the PBS|BBC series “A History of Christianity” with Diarmaid MacCulloch? He’s a Cambridge theologian who hypothesized that the worldwide decline in religiously actually began during WWI, when Western countries equated service with Christian duty. 20 million Soldiers and civilians died and 21 million were wounded. The scale of atrocity had never been seen. The completely insane idea of Christian postured against Christian was borne-out in bloody gore and ultimately illuminated the failure and hypocrisy of Christian religion. (By that I mean religion, as practiced, not Christ or His intent for His church.) Then in an aftershock came WWII with an additional 75-80 million lives lost, again- epicentered in the seat of Christianity. (Let’s just pause to take in the fact that witnesses observed in their lifetimes 100+ million souls lost and countless more wounded.)
So, whether articulated or not- whether realized or subconscious- the slow dance away from traditional religion has ultimately been a move toward self preservation- and the kicking-in of humanity’s survival instincts. The societal result of Christian religiosity has been centuries of warfare that culminated in modern technology that threatened to obliviate not just entire populations, but the world. Like any biological organism, humans are protecting themselves and moving away from these deadly societies. We can’t continue exponentially killing each other in God’s name (as blasphemous as that is). Agnosticism, atheism, and unaffiliated religious identity is an instinctual reflex.
If MacCulloch is right- none of the suggestions we’ve posed really matter- anything we do short of world peace is merely re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.
Thanks for the excellent post and comments.
Today, our structure of inward-facing cultural and religious activity is a legacy of the pattern set in the nineteenth century. For Mormons in nineteenth-century Utah, there was no meaningful distinction between participating in the Church and participating in the community. The Mormon community was all the community that Mormons had. Our survival as a people depended on inculcating care for the Mormon community, and for our cultural distinctiveness, as the highest priority.
Maybe it was with the Manifesto that the seeds of change were planted, or maybe it was a generation later, when the Church got really serious about eradicating polygamy. But as soon as the Church started down the road of assimilation in the broader culture, it was inevitable that eventually the Church’s inward-facing orientation would become obsolete.
I’m in my fifties now. During my childhood and my youth, Mormons were still outsiders in the broader culture, at least as I experienced it growing up in California. In that atmosphere, it still worked for us to go to church twice on Sunday and at least once more during the rest of the week, in addition to temple attendance, home teaching, visiting teaching, and various make-work leadership meetings. All of these things maintained our insular Mormon identity. Our insularity was a crucial part of our continuity with our ancestors.
Sometime in the 1980’s, I perceived a change in the way American culture saw Mormonism. We had spread widely enough and asserted ourselves effectively enough that a great many people personally knew a real Mormon. It turned out that we didn’t have horns, and intelligent people started acting accordingly. We were achieving acceptance, a thing we had worked toward for nearly a century.
So now, having been accepted into the hurly-burly cultural mainstream, we have to adapt. We long ago stopped gathering people to our Utah Zion. We say that we want to be an outward-facing, worldwide church. But the distinctive practices of life as a Latter-day Saint are all about preserving insularity. Our inherited, inward-facing cultural habits can’t endure the increasingly outward orientation of our lives. The gears are starting to seize up.
I suspect that we might find part of the solution to this problem in a basic reorientation of our cultural practices. We have to change our ideas about what it means to practice life as a Latter-day Saint. We must preserve the core of our devotion to Christ and the restored gospel while making more space in our lives for engagement with the world outside the Church. If we want to leaven the world, we have to take the risk of giving up our insular security.
Mortimer, thanks for the suggestion. I’ll have to check out that documentary. However we can dial back the clock many centuries and find Christians fighting Christians, the Thirty Years War in the early 1600s being one of the most deadly in human history. Christians also fought Christians during the Crusades, which was supposed to be about fighting Muslims, but ended up bringing conflict against the Christian Byzantines in some episodes. I guess the World Wars probably gave secularism, which had been building in energy and popularity since the Enlightenment, an opportunity space to flourish. Marx’s anti-religion views broke out of the confines of the ivory tower and were implemented throughout much of the Christian world. The US curiously remained more religious than Europe, probably because they didn’t fight battles on US territory, but secularism gained strength in the US as well.
What if the elephant in the room is government activity crowds out religion? That combined with the increasing tendency for everything we do to become more specialized and complicated.
In the Soviet Union that was overtly the case. In post war Europe and the rise of the state that is the case. As the USA has followed Europe that’s become the case.
It’s not just the fact that governments have crowded out all kinds of charitable activity by making them political footballs or policies, it’s also the increased regulation and requirements, and it’s most certainly all the complexity that goes with modern life in a statist system, which we are all a part of.
Jobs, houses, land zoning, banks, taxes, etc is all so complicated that we really can’t do much for each other thats meaningful. And the things we can do, we clearly don’t because we have we been practicing self isolation for too long.
Anyone ever propose that the relief society start rotating around helping paint the sisters houses or rooms? I have. Nearly everyone surveyed said they’d like to paint some rooms in their house. But when suggested that we join in and rotate through and help each other do it, the response was, “no that’s something we can do on our own”. And surprise, no one had done it and there’s no accompanying unity from working together on things that benefit each other.
If you’re not keeping your service sword sharpened in things like this, you’ll never be ready for the important opportunities when they come along.
Perhaps we need to take a long, hard look at the way our youth curricula materials have presented things. I know our kids became very, very tired of the constant “if you do this you will get such and such blessings”. They didn’t like that it was always presented as being about them. Our ASD son generally avoided youth activities, but always attended any service activities organised because they were worthwhile. Both our kids are now part of the YSA demographic. Both have a highly moral and ethical outlook, that doesn’t always match up with how the church likes to present things.
It just seems to me to be a bit rich to complain that those who are still attending are only looking to benefit themselves, when that is precisely what curricula materials were pushing for so long.
Our church is primarily run by Boomers. I think Millennials and Gen Z’s are leaving at least in part because of the wickedness of Boomers, whose values are reflected in church programs and culture and as we seem to endlessly observe, are often at odds with the gospel of Christ.
Whitfield, I didn’t do the series justice! You are indeed right- religious Christian warring had been going on even before the crusades. MacClouch did walk through Western religious conflicts (cited them as a long history of failed Christian discipleship). He pointed out that modern technology had perfected destruction to a point that the religious, ideological, monarchical, etc. societies we had constructed Coupled with our posturing now threatened *the world*. His theory had several more intersecting points (much like James Burke’s “Connections”). I recommend following it yourself- I’m unable to articulate all of it here.
My opinion is that every church leader (especially general officers and authorities) should read this every morning upon awakening:
From Rabbi Abraham Herschel:
“Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.”
Irrelevant: Church remains focused on issues/questions that are not important to the vast vast majority of people: authority to baptize, general apostasy; many people are simply not interested in such things; Continued reliance on the KJV which most cannot and do not understand so that the Bible itself becomes irrelevant; Lesson manuals that emphasize questions that no one is asking any longer.
Dull: General conference. (Just because it is not boring to you, doesn’t mean it is not boring.) Lesson manuals.
Oppressive: LGBTQ+ issues; feminist needs; insistence on outdated gender roles. Many younger people do not want to participate in a church that they see as oppressive.
Insipid: BYU honor code, modesty minutia, right handed sacrament rules, who sits where on the stand, who speaks first and last, who gives prayers; policies that seem to restrict the exercise of priesthood at home (restrictions on sacrament in some ares in the Covid-19 era)
The list is long.
I believe that many of “your” generation are leaving because they find our church to be irrelevant, dull, oppressive, and insipid.
Hear hear StephenC – in a nutshell. Thank you!
Mark – Thanks so much for the video. It’s really great!
Loursat – thanks so much! I think we’re supposed to be a peculiar people, but our peculiarities have to serve a purpose (brining us closer to Christ and to each other). I wouldn’t mind being more of an outsider again if the outsider status meant something. In other words, if we were “weird” by how much more service we gave or how humble our lives were even in wealth. I want to a part of a peculiar people. Just the right type of peculiar.
Thanks Charity hath failed us,
Let’s say we take it as a given that government activity is not going to decrease (at least for the short term). How do we adjust accordingly? There are still real temporal needs to be addressed in the United States even though there is government assistance. If you want to get a sense of those living in poverty today, I’d recommend “Evicted” by Matthew Desmond and “The Working Poor” by David Shipler (though I don’t necessarily agree with their political suggestions)
I actually think the greater problem is not the lack of poverty per se but the segregation from poverty. A ward in an upper class or middle class area might not have a nearby lower class neighborhood to interact with. We try to draw boundaries to counteract this, but there is only so much that we can do. I think it takes a lot of effort today to help those around us, but I do think there are opportunities.
Thanks again for your great post!
Sobering post. But I’m not sure the answer is calling people to repentance. Generally berating people is far less effective than inspiring and enthusing them. What can we do to make the Church less “dull, oppressive, and insipid”? Sitting around talking about the gospel doesn’t seem like the answer. We’ve become a Church full of poorly educated, unquestioning, mindless automatons. I mean, is there anything less stimulating than talking about a general conference talk for an hour?
stephenchardy and P,
Let’s say we reorganize things along the lines you are proposing. What would the lessons, talks and practices be about? I could potentially see entire lessons on how to interact online (i.e. avoid abusive language and behavior while still standing up for your beliefs), lessons on volunteering (as mentioned), researching and giving to good causes (once again with a Matthew 25 focus), etc.
What are your thoughts? IF we freed up space, what should we be emphasizing?
I think (part) of the answer is that we’re going to have to move away from preaching at church to doing at church (hence the reasoning behind point 4). I think we spend a lot of time talking about the gospel and precious little time applying it. So how can we apply the gospel together? I might add some thoughts later, but I think it involves things like (1) actively ministering together with people that are struggling to minister, instead of just asking or berating them to do better (2) change out some purely social activities for service activities and (3) changing ward councils so there is less focus on reporting and more a focus on actively reaching out to people during the meeting.
Thank you, William Barlow.
Regarding the interesting phrase “a peculiar people,” which occurs many times in the King James Version of the Old and New Testaments. In the English of our day, “peculiar” can mean either “distinctive” or “odd and eccentric.” We have lost the meaning that it had for the KJV translators. In the KJV, “peculiar” still meant something closer to its Latin root: “belonging to.” In the scriptures, then, “a peculiar people” means “a people who belong to God.” (Modern translations of the Bible pretty consistently reflect this more accurate meaning.)
It’s a mistake for us to think that we must be distinctive in an odd or eccentric way in order to be God’s people, but that’s the way we usually think about the meaning of that phrase. Historically, the idea that we needed to be odd was useful for a Mormon people distinguished by its separatism and its exceedingly odd practice of polygamy. We still suffer from the legacy of that way of thinking. We use it to justify our dysfunctional insularity.
We need to think creatively about ways to preserve an identity as Latter-day Saints while getting beyond our insularity. This has to mean a willingness to rethink and, to some extent, redefine what is distinctive about being a Latter-day Saint. We need to find ways of strengthening our community by engaging with, rather than avoiding, the wider world.
My concern about calling for more service is that, often, this turns into more tasks and assignments and demands. We need to encourage and celebrate service without turning it into tasks, assignments, or demands. YSAs (and all adult church members) need to feel like they are in control and contributing meaningfully. Leaders in YSA units (and all church units) need to try to think in this light.
I disagree strongly that people aren’t leaving the church because of LGBTQ and church history/doctrine issues. It is why my wife and I left. It is why my two brothers and their wives left. I could easily name 10 friends who have left the church and, to a man, LGBTQ and church history issues is why they all left.
“The main reason we are leaving the Church is because we do not feel that we are becoming more like Jesus Christ.” That statement I agree with, but for different reasons than you might think. Feeling that you need to validate and stand up for the church’s beliefs on LGBTQ issues certainly doesn’t make one feel Christ-like. It also doesn’t promote Jesus-type feelings when you learn how the church has distorted, hidden, and lied about its past and its doctrines. So, yeah, people are leaving because the church doesn’t follow the pattern of Jesus. There are ways to change that and, sure, more service would be great, but that doesn’t change all of the church’s sins.
Troy – I could have phrased that better. People are leaving because of the LGBTQ issues. But I still think that the main reason we are losing people in my generation is because of feeling like we are not becoming like Jesus Christ. Part of that is becoming better church-wide of being tolerant of LGBTQ individuals. But I see larger failings in our failure to welcome new people into the community, our failure to take service seriously, our failure to reduce our material consumption and give to those in need.
In short, I think you’re right that we do need to be inclusive of LGBTQ individuals and the Church has lost members over that. But that is a subsidiary of a larger issue of not being fully directed towards Christ.
ji – thanks for your comment! I think it’s an issue of trying to reduce certain tasks to make way for other, more important ones.
Thanks for the excellent insight, Loursat! I always enjpy learning the context of the original scripture. Perhaps I’ll have to rethink how I use the phrase “peculiar people.”
First let me say that Troy Cline above left the church because he found it to be oppressive. In his view, our church is oppressing sexual minorities, and he couldn’t continue to support it. He left not because he lacks moral principles, but because of them.
I myself have chosen to stay and work from the perspective of an fully active, tithe paying, temple going member. But I understand his decision. And mourn it.
I’m not sure that I really understand your question. But let me start here:
We could make our meetings less dull and insipid by re-working our Sunday School system.
First, we need to throw away the book-of-scripture-a-year approach and slow down. Way way down. We could easily spend a month for example, studying carefully King Benjamin’s speech. We could spend that time, or more, on the sermon on the mount.
Let’s say we spend a year on the four gospels. Even that may be too large of a chunk. A year on the Gospel of Mark would be unbelievable. In a good way.
Consider a lesson or perhaps two on the parable of the good Samaritan. The lessons would have time to cover:
1. The parable could be read from 3 or 4 translations. None of us (essentially) can read Greek or Hebrew, so we are dealing with translations. How are the various translations different? What can we can we learn from the decision to use certain specific words?
2. We can take time to discuss the priest and the Levite. Is the parable really about them? If the parable were given today, with Jesus speaking on TV to church members in Utah, then who would the priest and Levite be? A stake president? A general authority? A relief society president? Why didn’t they stop? Were they too busy? (Studies have shown that people who are late or who are highly occupied are much less likely to stop and help someone in need than someone who isn’t in a hurry to begin with.) How should we structure our lives so that we don’t miss the Savior (here in the form of a wounded person) in front of us. Were the priest and Levite bad persons? We want to see ourselves as the Samaritan, but maybe we should take time to see ourselves as the Levite.
3. There could be a few general conference quotes.
4. There could also be quotes from leaders outside our church and from early Christian traditions. Catholics, Methodists, Born-agains, Jews (rabbis have studied and commented on this parable), civic leaders, mayors, others who have been moved by this story.
5. There would be time to discuss the fact that this story does not need to be historical to be “true.” Discuss
6. We could ask if anyone in the class has been helped by others at a time when they felt lost and hopeless.
7. We should end the lesson by bearing testimony.
Hopefully all of this studying of the actual words of Jesus would help us understand Him better and help us understand His message to all of us. It might make us more ready to respond to those around us in a state of need and crisis.
Then after a week or two of this, we could move on the Parable of the Lost Coin, and do it again.
We are so rushed by having to teach a whole book of scripture per year that we learn to not learn deeply. We learn to not drink deeply and sate our thirst. Our lessons become dull (repetitive), insipid (shallow)
In other words, in short, we would study and share the gospel.
This generalizing about generations just cracks me up. E was particularly amusing in that regard. Eight of the Q15 (all of the FP) are older than Boomers, by the usual definition of the term. There are a great many Boomers who left because, as StephenC noted, Church is too often “irrelevant, dull, oppressive, and insipid.” Of course, there are also many who stayed in spite of its being too often those things. Those who stay seem to have a wide variety of reasons for staying — many of them staying in spite of the things about the Church or taught in Church that they reject (usually quietly) or which make them quite unhappy when focused on. I suspect there is a similar wide variety of reasons why Millenials leave or stay and that the differences in percentages has a great deal to do with changing or changed cultures within and without the Church. There are Boomers, and not a just a few, who think the Church has generally (and not just YSA wards) pretty much abandoned many of the things about it in the 50s and 60s that made it a community and has poured so much into its traditional heterosexual nuclear family ideal that it has made itself largely irrelevant to the current lives of its many singles and others who do not fit that ideal. One Boomer remarked to me that it seemed current leadership had taken us down the road of being a church of the heterosexual nuclear family rather than a church of the gospel of Christ exemplified in love and service. (Looking at the Q15, I have no reason to believe that could change anytime in the next 20-30 years.) I choose to stay and make my generally insignificant contribution to community and gospel living, but cannot fault those for whom that approach is not viable for whatever variety of reasons. I just wonder why people are so intent on generational generalizing.
Thousands of stubborn old ultra-conservative men and $100B says the Church “changes” little if any. Maybe they’ll surprise me – but maintaining that Mormons “need” to become other than what they are is like insisting that Hasidic Jews or Opus Dei Catholics lighten up a little. Is more “service” the answer? Give me a break. My midsized Midwestern town is well-populated by sick, impoverished meth addicts who never graduated high school and are deeply involved in crime. What can we do for them? The social catastrophe of small-town America is not amenable to any band-aid the Church has to offer. Moreover, our right-leaning politics has only exacerbated the problem by blinding us to its scope and nature, not to mention its solution.
p – It seems like you believe that the Church won’t change and that, even if it did change, it wouldn’t make a difference anyway. If that’s the case, wouldn’t it be better to spend your time organizing left-wing politics in your community (assuming that’s your preferred political preference)? I’m not saying your points aren’t valid. But if they are valid, why waste your time discussing a hopeless cause? It seems like you’d be happier and do more good building up something you do believe in. Help organize a cause that you think would actually make a difference.
Do the church’s claims cohere with available historical evidence and lived experience? Does the church’s position regarding LGBT people resonate with your deepest human sense of empathy and justice? Be fully honest with yourself, perhaps for the first time in your adult life. Did you feel it just now? Did you feel the ground shudder under your feet and the eerie sensation that you are about to faint?
That’s why people are leaving. Reality and basic human decency are powerful motivators.
The church can adapt or the church can continue to slide into obsolescence. You know this. You probably can’t say it out loud, but you know it.
Fight it all you want, flagellate yourself and others, the outcome is fixed unless the church submits and changes.
But you already know this, this dread you cannot name.
anon – the Church has some advantages. First, there is a God, and he reveals truth to us. That I know through personal experience. I also believe that he wants to help us and he wants us to help each other. The Church, broadly speaking, is a mechanism for us to do that. We’re trying to make sense of the revelation God has given us so that we can live our lives according to his will. The Church will continue to exist because it gets those first few, basic things right, even if the stuff we believe downstream of that is messy and sometimes wrong.
Look at your own post. It’s personally accusatory – “be fully honest with yourself, perhaps for the first time in your adult life” It’s not motivated by love, even of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. You might get some of the downstream stuff right. Maybe your positions on LGBTQ will end up being closer to God’s will. But if your motivation is self-congratulatory rather than love, then you’re headed down the same dark path as the ultra-judgmental religious bigots you want to be so different from.
Here’s a way to make your same point. “People are leaving the church because they don’t believe its historical claims. Do even believe them yourself? They’re leaving the church because of its position to LGBTQ people. Do you believe its position yourself? IF the church doesn’t change, it will slide into obsolescence. No amount of other changes will be enough if we don’t change those things.”
You’re my brother/sister, anon. We can work through these tough conversations, but do it with love.
stephenchardy – I love your lesson plans and would welcome them. However, the number of people who could handle teaching lessons at this level is very small. In my ward, there are two of us. That is partly because of the amount of work involved (a 50 minute lesson usually takes me 6-10 hours to prepare) and partly because teaching is a skill that takes years (and years and years) to master. Asking someone with zero teaching experience (or a couple of year of teaching EQ or RS once a month) to teach at this level is unrealistic.
And that’s in the US. What are countries with a lower level of education supposed to do?
But again, I love the idea. I love the depth. I wish the church was filled with people who viewed the scriptures through this lens. But, I’m just iffy on the application.
I sort of agree. But only sort of.
A good lesson manual or teaching guide could have:
1. Various translations, and different words highlighted.
2. Questions or prompts that encourage us to consider the Levite as us.
3. Quotes from other leaders, religions, and others about the parable.
4. General conference quotes.
5. Finally and maybe most importantly, a set of questions that are open ended and probing. Which allow moral reasoning. Our manuals and meetings are meant to convey the idea that all the answers are there right in front of us. Maybe they are.
But the process of answering is as important, or maybe more important, than the questions themselves.
Without engaging in the process, the lessons become dull and insipid and irrelevant. I think that we can do it. But first, the we have to want it. Our leaders have to want it. They have to understand that the lessons and teaching formats as currently laid out are not building resilient faith.
Thanks much for your post. Comments TLDR. I believe the application of “system over psyche” would be very helpful here concerning this problem of YSAs not coming to Christ in the ways you and perhaps many others would have hoped and expected. Not that individual problems of Millenials (psyche) you site aren’t worth deeply considering. But rather a balance toward the system within which YSAs are embedded in the Church, local cultures, US culture, Western cultures, and global cultures. I believe it would be profound to carefully consider systemic issues that actively work to Keep YSAs in the place in which you are critiquing all of you all for. There seems to be clear dyanamic systems of oppression in the cultures in which YSAs are embedded that keep them from thriving religiously and spiritually. The fact that LDS Millenials and all Millenials are leaving the religions of their youth at alarming rates suggests to me there is “something rotten in Denmark” (organized religion) as religions seem to be decidedly not positioning themselves with powerful life changing messages that are curturally relevant to Millenials, including the LDS Church of which I’m a member. This positioning I believe will require a reformation of the purpose, intent, objective, and hope of organized religion for the people at it’s core. BTW I’m Gen X, 1968.
Got a story about how church institutional policies and programs can isolate or ostracize:
Boy Scouts was a program I hated—as a teenager in the 1990s, the thought of wearing those silly uniforms and badges was too much. A few of us were scolded for skateboarding in the church parking lot during Boy Scouts (which was a fully-church-sponsored activity). We didn’t like Boy Scouts, and there was no tolerance for skateboarding. So, in a way, Boy Scouts was genesis for inactivity of a lot of young men in Southern California: we thought Boy Scouts was creepy, outdated, too fraternal: “not our culture.”
The institution and its leadership ostracized us and treated us poorly for not liking Boy Scouts. We were compared to Laman and Lemuel.
Turns out, some Boy Scouts and their Troop Leaders were in fact, creepy and too fraternal. There are now hideous accounts of sex abuse in the church-sponsored Boy Scouts—most of them quietly covered up in out-of-court settlements funded by tithing. The irony!
One last comment: Stern moralizing on Millenials seems it will have the opposite effect you’re hoping for.
I’m a Gen Xer gay man. I stuck with the Church until I was nearly 40, serving in intensive leadership and teaching callings, and had the opportunity to view the singles program over a long period of time in three different states. I think that many people leave because they are spiritually starving–and not because they aren’t studying their scriptures and serving others. Church seems to be a whole lot of busy work. We castigate a generation for being too inwardly focused, yet the Church seems to be deeply, inwardly focused. For the most part, we only serve other Mormons…unless there is a disaster. We search the world trying to make others into Mormons, and if they won’t become Mormons we move on. We’re very good about patting ourselves on the back for being good Mormons. And it seems that our curriculum and worship services are almost completely focused on how to be better Mormons. I think many young folks come to church to socialize and find a spouse because there really isn’t much else for them there. Between the materialism and intense inward focus, they starve.
I found that in many places, single people are not viewed as adults. It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy–see them as immature, not “really” adults like the couples with families, and they remain that way. We mature in Christ by doing real service for each other, ministering. I think things are getting better. But I think it’s unfair to blame the starving man for starving when we won’t put nourishing food in front of him. Maybe we don’t know how to make a spiritually nourishing meal for the starving man.
I don’t want to mislead–the Church is full of great people who are true disciples of Christ. But I fear nothing less than a complete upheaval–maybe a disaster or crisis–will wake us up to these problems.
I would agree with Jeremiah. My children are not staying in the church – my oldest is gay and the church doesn’t really have a place for her. Seminary is busy work and sleep deprivation. Sundays are monotonous and Sunday school is tedious. Missions also can feel like two pointless years. How about we invest some of that 100 billion dollars in making the world better. Let’s put that gospel investment and really do things in the world. Let’s put our shoulder to the wheel.
Yana Riess, has actually surveyed people who have left. So we do not need to conjecture about their motives..
Generationally, there were interesting and significant differences. Among Millennials, the top five answers were:
“I felt judged or misunderstood.”[tied for first]
“I did not trust the Church leadership to tell the truth surrounding controversial or historical issues.
””The Church’s positions on LGBT issues.
””I could no longer reconcile my personal values and priorities with those of the Church.
““I drifted away from Mormonism.”
#3 is, to me, especially interesting. LGBT issues did not even crack the top ten for former Mormons over age 52. For Millennials it was the third most important reason for leaving, and among Gen Xers it was sixth.
As an Australian, I find the connection between the church and the right of US politics very problematic. The left of US politics is to the right of our conservatives.
I see the opposition to LGBT and womens equalty to be the result of this. They are certainly nothing to do with Christ.
I also see the loss of trust in leadership being contributed to by this right wing agenda. Lack of moral judgement. Lack of comment on financial inequality. Members of my ward defend Trump on facebook, thinking they are defending the church by this.
That our leaders insist on being sustained as prophets, but seem to be inspired more by right wing politics rather than Christ. This also does not help their credibility.
Up until a few weeks ago I was an active member of the church, (are there any active members now?) but I see very little hope for the future of the church, unless there is a total change of direct, except as a small extreme right wing, irrelavent group.
I don’t think you can assign service. People in my family do incredible amounts of service outside the church.
Agreed, Geoff, the right-wing takeover has been an unmitigated disaster for the Church, exemplified by past institutional excommunications of individuals for advocating women’s rights and truthful history among other things. A great deal of talent, inspiration & energy has walked right out the door. Bro Barlow’s characterization of his generation as “wicked” is in that same vein. I remember a RadioWest program in Salt Lake a few years ago which featured several Republican state legislators, undoubtedly LDS, arguing the necessity of allowing Univ of Utah students to carry handguns on campus. At that very moment the pollution was so bad in that city that it completely obscured the mountains – no small feat, believe me. I’d call that the perfect metaphor.
Geoff-Aus, “LGBT issues did not even crack the top ten for former Mormons over age 52.”
I suspect those issues may crack the top ten for former Mormons over age 52 who left during or after the Prop 8 campaign. Did the survey separate statistics only by age? or also by age at the time they left?
Here is some good news. The Church created and administers an outward facing website for community service: JustServe.org. It is designed to foster genuine service. Here in Phoenix, it has hundreds of postings for service at a wide range of agencies and non-profits. Some of the full time missionaries use it to find their community service, and agencies like Catholic Charities love to have them. It’s based on the idea that individuals should be able to choose for themselves how and when to serve in the larger community.
The old model is big Church-led service projects in our own Church buildings. The new JustServe model is self-selected service in someone else’s non-profit or agency, shoulder to shoulder with community members from many walks of life. As one General Authority put it, “How can we be the salt of the earth, if we stay in a clump in the cultural hall?”
How about getting rid of the top down control? I think millennials and other generations would take control of their church experience if given the chance. There might emerge some changes that the overall church could then adopt. It would also help if the church dropped a lot of the truth claims that simply aren’t true.
William, thank you tons for sharing your thoughts. It means a lot as my spouse (we’re old) presently works in a YSA stake. So, I ask this question sincerely… None of your descriptions of your YSA age group sound heroically different from those describing earlier generations. I myself have heard the same symptoms this age group in the 1980’s, 1970s, and 1960s (though we used a different LDS label for them back then). I’ve also read sermons from Heber C. Kimball that were delivered in the 1860’s castigating the very same age cohort for the very same things (though he used different examples of selfishness and immorality). I realize you don’t have the wisdom that often comes with age. But you’re very articulate. Could you scrape a layer deeper? What do you think plagues the present YSA generation that truly didn’t exist in any past generations or didn’t exist in such numbers? Is there anything underneath that you believe is truly, truly different? Much thanks in advance for a response…And thank you as well for reaching out to others who need social contact, to trying to be part of the solution in your ward instead of just a critic from the sidelines.
Long ago I noticed that there seems to be a cycle in movements, like churches. Successful movements are started by “changers,” charismatic people with a new vision. Jesus, Mohamed, and Joseph Smith are examples. Another might be Mao Tse Tung. These changers imbue the organization with a dynamic that draws people to it.
To be honest, changers are difficult people because they like to change things. Mao over lived his mandate and brought much misery to the Chinese people as a result. He wanted a continuous revolution that wreaks havoc with people trying to build. In order to be successful the movement has to be passed on to the “keepers,” like Brigham Young, Peter, and Paul, among others.
So, after 300 years of diversity, Christianity was passed to the ultimate keepers, Constantine and the Christian fathers who fought the remnant of the changers, the Gnostics. Whatever you think about the Gnostics, they were exciting. They believed in continuous revelation and the paramount position of knowledge.
The keepers cast organizations in cement so that they will not change. Actually, without the keepers, the changers are too destructive even if they are exciting. But the keepers are not exciting. For them the journey is over and the edifice is complete.
What I see in the Church is this natural progression. David O. McKay was a man just a long generation removed from Joseph Smith and had a memory of the spirit and charisma of the Founder, the changer, We are now two or three generations removed from that, and the memory is fading quickly. We have become institutional. In an age of deinstitutionalization, this is very tough. The rules and doctrine remain static while society becomes more conscious and aware. The Church has difficulty delivering relevant goods in this time and place.
An example is moving very slowly to give women a larger voice in exercising the priesthood power given them by virtue of their temple endowment and officiation.
It is like the Boy Scouts. The idea of the Boy Scouts was to bring a wider and more interesting world to boys. If that had been emphasized, it could have been a wonderful foundation for many. As it devolved to the keepers, it is merit badges and advancement. For me, in an earlier generation, it was canoeing on the Delaware River, hiking the Appalachian Trail and summer camp and winter camp, and friends. Merit badges came along as a matter of course. Any good thing can be made into tedium.
I had a friend who was put in charge of the Church Boy Scouts in Canada. He wanted to put a vital and interesting program in place. He had tried this program for a year and found it exhilarating. Then he struggled with the Church hierarchy. He went to SLC to propose his new program, but he found that the apostle who was in charge of the Boy Scouts basically hated the Boy Scout program, likely because it was not “correlated”. And anyway my friend’s new program would not fit in correlation either. My friend became depressed because he had a wonderful vision that was squelched by the “keeper” mentality. I think he basically quit the Church except for his care for his wife and children.
Like missions: when I went (David O. McKay) we had a huge amount of freedom. I read “Elmer Gantry” in German. I read Time magazine and Frankfurter Allgemeine, I saw a movie, “Seduction on the Beach” albeit by accident due to my faulty German translation of the title, but we did not walk out. My mission broadened my horizons in many dimensions. I attended a class in early Christianity at the Universitaet Wien (my poor companion). I had a friend who served a mission in this time-frame in Montana without purse or scrip. Can you imagine? Now missions are straight jackets. There are, of course, reasons. The keepers always can find reasons. Rather than focusing on the benefits of spiritual freedom, the dangers of that freedom are hemmed in and emphasized.
“He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” 2 Corinthians 3:6
William. Comrade. Dude.
Are you the type to befriend a stranger when you know people are watching?
Are you are the type to publicize your good works, “…I had to go give a blessing,”?
Are you a professional Boy Scout?
When I see do-gooders at church, I also put my head down to a book or phone, avoid eye contact, and pray you won’t come try to “cheer me up.” Then, I make sure to leave church early to avoid your “ministering” to me. Even if I like you.
While inclined to agree generally with RW, I don’t think the matter is quite as simple as the stated categories. In some ways JS was a keeper — at least of his control of the organization and his demand for loyalty that restricted spiritual freedom, e.g. his/organizational response to Hiram Page’s revelations, and multiple excommunications followed by reinstatements after deferring to JS. In some ways BY was a changer, though one who may have disguised his doctrinal or policy innovations by claiming he had them from JS, e.g. blacks/priesthood/temple policy; maybe Adam-God theory. The changer/keeper categorizations may be far from strict, but the general direction of institutional change from charismatic leader oriented to preservation of tradition oriented is observable in the Church as well as other institutions.
Yes, there was comparatively a great deal more freedom allowed and greater trust (often misplaced) in young missionaries under DOM than in more recent decades. E.g. early in my German-speaking mission I took a correspondence course in Catholicism from an Austrian monastery. I wanted to understand better the religious background of some of the people I was meeting. What surprised me most was the remarkable similarity between the view of that particular version of Catholicism as to how God leads and directs the Roman Catholic church through inspiration and tradition and the view of our Church as to revelation and tradition. Historically we (or some of us) have sometimes even turned speculations or what had become traditional policies into doctrine or built speculative doctrines around them in an effort to make sense of them, e.g. early speculations about spirit birth v. organization of “intelligence” matter into spirits, the whole speculative effort to explain the black/priesthood policy in some way consistent with a concept of a just and universally loving God.
But then, I wonder what any of this has to do with the subject of William’s post. Sorry Sort of.
I am a bit concerned that “stern admonitions” very often have as negative effect as a positive effect on the hearer. Here’s one Boomer anyway who doesn’t respond well to that tone but needs to be inspired by example and encouraged with stories. I recall a time years ago when I hated going to priesthood meeting — perhaps still sometimes, but for different reasons. I perceived our then instructor as one whose stern admonitions always seemed like adding to a long list of things we must do in addition to what we were already unable to keep up with or go to hell. Had I not been married with a young family, I expect I would have chosen, despite testimony of the restoration, to absent myself from such abuse. From observation, I expect current YSA generations may be even less positively responding to stern admonitions than those of us who came of age in the 60s.
Pagan – Thank you so much for your kind comments! I can only really offer my speculation to your question. Millennials have become generally disengaged in all sorts of institutions, whether those are religious, civic or political. This follows the trend of Gen X and is continuing even more in Gen Z.
I suspect we have a crowding out problem. As there are more and more options competing for our time, we naturally gravitate towards those that give instant gratification. Church and service are many things. But they do not give much instant gratification.
I think this is also why we have such trouble being welcoming at church. The people that are the hardest to welcome are those that are socially awkward or that we don’t already know. We don’t want to talk to them because it’s less fun. That part has been a problem for every generation.
What’s unique for us is that we can stay at home, browse social media, go to our favorite youtube channels, etc. and get a sense of community without leaving our rooms. There’s a substitute that was lacking before. And people are using the substitute.
Thanks RW for sharing your thoughts! I think we will need some changers. So much of even our day to day lives are different today than they were 30 years ago. Religion has to adjust its teachings. Not because the doctrine is different. But the practice of “loving your neighbor” looks different in a world as interconnected as ours. We need changers to show us the new way and give us the freedom to pursue it.
Thank you Comrade Travis :) I may be the self-righteous oaf you think. But I’ve seen that it works enough times to keep doing it. People oafishly introduced themselves to an investigator drenched in Axe body spray with mental issues. He now comes regularly (he got baptized) and – outside of roommates – church is the only real social interaction he has. It’s done him a lot of good.
If you have a different way of doing it, even better. I’m not trying to convert people to my particular brand of helping. But simply ignoring the needs of socially awkward, outcast, or new people at church is not an option. That’s what I’ve seen happen all too often.
Well-done Wm Barlow: you’ve lit up T&S like we rarely see w/ wide, varied & strongly opinionated participation. Suddenly this staid little blog is a destination!
p – Thank you so much! I know things can get heated sometimes. But hopefully it’s because we’re passionate about things that are important. Thanks for reading and commenting!
poster/William Barlow said: “If nothing else, they can volunteer their time to help babysit for married couples with small children, who are often over stretched and over burdened.”
I can’t believe that your “YSA Rescue” has forced, free baby-sitting for married members as a plank in its program. Get real.
How disappointing that T&S allows comments that accuse the Lord’s Church of inhibiting Christian discipleship, but deletes comments accusing the accusers of the same. Which way do you face?
Forced, How do you get from “they can volunteer … to help babysit” to “forced babysitting?” Not sure you missed “volunteer” since you quoted it.
Maybe it’s time to terminate comments on this post.
These things are always “volunteer” at the start. This is just typical exploitation. What starts as “voluntary” soon becomes “mandatory.”
Forced babysitting is dumb – what’s your proposal to help us serve people more and also serve people more effectively? We (at leas the YSAs) clearly need to be doing more Matthew 25 service than we’re doing now. How do you think we should get there?
Here’s the problem: people like you are real “big” on volunteering other people’s time. Try to make the program better for YSA’s…not for their married overlords.
I understand that you don’t “get it.”
I’m a YSA. Some of my friends have families of their own. As a YSA, I have more free time than my friends with young kids. My friends with small families are often very stressed with the burdens of child care.
I’ve found offering child care to be an easy and useful way to give service to others. If YSAs are struggling to find ways to give service, it is a simple idea that has worked for me and may work for them.
“married overlords” – freaking crazy brilliant funny. Can’t stop laughing
When the product is no good, people don’t buy it. Either billions of former and current humans are wrong about the product or something about the product is wrong.
Most religions come and go. Very few endure for successive generations. Ours is at a tipping point and you can either claim overall numbers and assert that it is growing or you can point to active to inactive/former ratios and see that it is functionally shrinking. We need not calculate the quiet despair of many still showing up on Sundays (when the plague isn’t raging).
If those with the institutional authority wish to grow the church again, they will make concessions to forces they can’t alter and get on with it, like every long-standing religion has done. If they do not want to grow, they won’t. Current leadership seems to think that they can somehow increase membership numbers by refusing to yield in battles and shifts that are already in the past. Unless existing church members start having much bigger families, the days of growth are over.
There is no single core doctrine, theology, or policy that has not been altered in our religion’s relatively brief existence. It may not be pleasant to consider that, but this is the good news. Everything can change, sometimes 180 from one day to the next. Right now those in charge are making change more difficult for their successors, but even so change will come. Or it won’t and our provincial little religious experiment goes the way of nearly all the others.
One thing that won’t work: berating and shaming members. Short term, you might retain or motivate some people. Long term, you end up catalyzing the opposite of your goal.
Time for a better product. People will buy it if it adds value to their lives.
Agreed, Anon, residual hubris from the salad days is astonishing, as if Harold Bloom himself had been some kind of as-yet unfulfilled prophet. It is tempting to lay all this at the feet of nona/octogenarians were it not for the fact that the institution always behaves like this until the costs becomes prohibitive, as w/ polygamy & priesthood ban. Now there’s roughly $124B in the bank, which may actually be a better reality insulator than steep membership growth: so we lose a few.
I’m late to the discussion, but this has been fascinating. As a father and bishop (Gen X) I am eager for insights into helping the rising generation engage with the gospel of Jesus Christ. I am sympathetic to the issues raised here, and yet I feel we fight so many headwinds both outside the Church and within Church culture and tradition. I do feel there are compelling voices inside the Church who “get it” and are trying to change our language and our focus in positive ways. While I must qualify that I am generally not a fan of the linked publication (to put it mildly), this article has given me a lot of food for thought as a Church leader: https://thefederalist.com/2015/04/10/how-not-to-communicate-with-millennials-like-hozier/.
Well. You get a new logo. That will bring all those young adults flocking back.
What a cesspool this comment section (and blog?) is. It is overrun with anti-Mormons, ark steadiers, apostates, ExMormons, murmuring progressives, and self congratulatory SJWs.
Almost none lead with the premise that this is God’s work, Christ’s church, and He has prophets and apostles trying to seek the inspiration He desires to lead His Church and to move His work forward. There’s just a ton of slander of church leadership and devoted/active adherents.
There is almost no faith among your commenting readership.
(Sarcasm) It’s a fine group you’re gathering here. I’m sure they’ll help get God’s Kingdom in order for Him.(/Sarcasm)
I believe I have the answer.
Based on 1) the fact that I am 78 and anxious to bestow my “great accumulated wisdom” on some newer generations, and 2) that the topic of greatest interest to me – the growth of the church – has become a current topic on Times and Seasons and elsewhere, it looks like it is time to give the world a dose of probably what only a few would like to hear, and many would not like to hear. It will probably get me in trouble, but it may be worth it.
As many of the commenters here are hinting, there is need for some major changes somewhere. My conclusion is that the biggest single problem relates to structural changes with the church itself. One commenter, identified only as “anon April 2, 2020 at 4:53 pm,” opines that it is ” Time for a better product. People will buy it if it adds value to their lives.”
I perfectly agree with his wise conclusion, although we may be thinking of completely different reasons for such a conclusion. It would take me an entire book to explain myself, so one or two points is all I will try to add to the discussion at this point. Imagine that we actually had a New Testament church where the word “tithing,” a thoroughly law of Moses/Old Testament concept, was never even heard of for at least 300 years after the time of Christ. It was only added much later when the church began to revert to the old law of Moses thinking that had preceded the introduction of the Christian church by Christ himself.
If young single adults paid essentially no tithing to the central church, but had all of their tithing money, their potential charitable contributions, burning a hole in their pockets, with a ward total of perhaps $1 million a year in potential contributions, which could be discussed and coordinated, and available for community action, it might be interesting indeed to see how that collection of young single adults (or any other group of Saints) would decide to spend their million dollars. It is their religious contribution money, and they ought to be the ones spending and managing it. Being serious and well-funded Good Samaritans could be a lot of fun and rather engaging. This plan would be called heresy, of course, but the real heresy is the gradual structural reversion from the gospel of Christ to the gospel of Moses. Fix that, and you have a new and exciting gospel of charity that will probably explode, just as the church did during and after the life of Christ.
I added a lengthy and more detailed comment to another recent Times and Seasons post on the topic of
“Mid-1990’s projections for 2020 revisited.” Or you could go to MormonSurveys.blogger.com for much more on the topic, plus the chance to take a fairly complicated one-question survey I just constructed this week.
Sorry for the typo. That should be MormonSurveys.blogspot.com.
Church is boring, that is why you get people aren’t coming. Same with many traditional Protestant churches (Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist etc.) That happen to be more socially progressive.
The Christian churches that are growing are non-denominational/evangelical churches. Better music, trained clergy that know how to preach (you actually want to hear what they have to say) and minister. They pull out the Bible and know how to apply it. The word comes alive. More activities with a greater emphasis on service like you mentioned. They have many of the same socially conservative values. So I agree with your point that progressive social issues aren’t driving as many millennials away as many would think.
I also felt like being in a YSA ward made me into an kid again. We couldn’t have a dance without a married couple watching us. Activities were often really silly and infantile. The kind of stuff you did in middle school. My favorite YSA ward, was one in the DC area filled with professionals that had some money in their pocket. We did some great activities and service projects. The Bishop even treated us like adults. Our ward choir was good enough to be invited to sing in various venues around Christmas time, including other churches and cathedrals.
It also doesn’t help that the Q12 is getting older and older as a group. Or maybe their way of thinking feels older. President Nelson seems to be making some changes, but they feel like procedural changes to pet peeves he has had over the last few decades.
I think these changes could be applied to the Church as a whole, but you risk alienating other generations. It goes without saying, who pays the bills and fills the seats get to set the rules. It certainly isn’t millennials/gen. X and Z.